Swapping Homes Anybody?


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The House is still Standing

We're home and the house is still standing. Except for a broken kitchen cabinet door, a missing beach towel and saucepan, a broken door stopper and rearranged kitchen utensils and dishware.The question on everybody's mind  is: Would you do it again? Would you recommend home swapping?
In short: yes but with a few caveats and extra precautions. I left a diplomatic hint here before that the second exchange was less wonderful than we had expected. And now that the second exchange partner is no longer in my house I will not gloss over what caused us some hassle and kept irritating us as long as we were in theirs.
I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings but I'm compelled to give my readers a few pointers as to what to watch out for if they want to embark on a home swapping trip. The owners of the website where we signed up don't want a rating system like Tripadviser in order to keep their customers' privacy. Especially the European ones- they said- are very worried about privacy. That I know from my German background. In Germany, as in other European countries, privacy laws exist that the USA has not adopted or maybe gotten rid off. I appreciate their concern. I also understand that for them all subscribers are paying clients, i.e., money in the bank. At the same time, Europeans have very stringent and effective consumer rights. When I had my dating agency, I felt responsible for my clients, noted their feed-back. I was also concerned about my own reputation and that of my agency. In my opinion, the readers who are following my blog deserve an honest report.
Home swapping is like dating, I said that before. Perusing these sites is like weeding, an image that just came to mind coming in from the yard. Mr. Freud was clearly at work here: Sorting the wheat from the chaff. (Or weeds from the gaffe. Gaff is a Dublin slang word for abode).
Let's start with photos on a website. Like on dating sites photos can be deceptive. The house we found in place had some resemblance to the one on the site, but it had aged about 10 years. That happened to me more than once with men. It's not only women who lie about their age on dating sites...
Mold next to bed in masterbedroom.
I should have guessed as much because one of the kids in the pictures was a toddler, now a teenager. The depicted new looking garden plastic furniture had deteriorated to a moldy black; the fence was torn up in places, some prominent plants had died, the sun umbrella was gone. It hadn't seen a lick of paint in the last 10 years, fixtures and some furniture were broken, and many a light bulb was missing. Photos don't reveal the smell. They are hardly ever close-ups where you see the dust or grime. And there was plenty of it. That was actually a grievance I had to deal with in my dating encounters. You never ask a potential meeting partner how clean he is and how cluttered his house.  
What you can ask, however, and what I will do in the future is pick a place that has access to a cleaner or even employs one on a regular basis. That is a good sign. I had asked the other party if they could provide a cleaner for when we were leaving. This way I wouldn't have to do the overall clean myself at the end of our 4 weeks. No, he said and laughed it off by adding that, allegedly there were no cleaners available in August; perpetuating the myth that everybody goes on vacation in France then and everything closes down.
Our first exchange family had a cleaner and were willing to pay for one here in our house when they left. The second family clearly wasn’t house-proud and it showed. Strangely enough, they had left numerous packets of wipes (lingettes) all over the house. The cynic in me has a sneaking suspicion that they do an exchange once a year to have their house cleaned properly and light bulbs bought....}
Advice #1: Ask how old the photos are. Although the website suggests after the exchange to update your details, not everybody seems to do so and get away with it for a while.
#2 Make sure you have access to a cleaner before, while and after your stay.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The last repas

Only in the last few days did we learn that there were places of interest in the immediate vicinity of our little town; e.g., St.Germain-en-Laye, situated close to the Carrefour we used to shop at, had a lovely castle.We never knew. Plus the only open restaurant on a Monday night in August which also was a holiday: Assumption Day. We had a friend visit us whom I hadn’t seen in 13 years. What a reunion! A lot to catch up on including the introduction of a new husband.
The next night we drove around Medan, a neighboring village, looking for the house where Emile Zola lived. In addition, we were rewarded with a beautiful meal for less than what we were used to paying in the city. Quite en famille and next to a volière. Our home exchange partner had only divulged this info in the last few days. I guess everybody visiting the Hotel de Paris would have preferred to go downtown to Paris anyway. The chance of a lifetime. There is so much to see. Weeks aren’t enough, just to scratch the surface.
Then it was time to pack our menagerie of 6 Big Berthas again. Half of my clothes I didn’t use due to the weather. We don’t travel lightly, but the tool kit we brought was used twice, once in each house. The superglue came in handy and we used the coated wire to fix the dishwasher.
The pre-ordered taxi arrived on time. We had to make sure it would hold all our stuff. Price ca. 90-95 EUR. That was exactly what my in-laws paid coming from the airport. But the logic of same distance didn't hold. We were charged EUR 125.Pourqui? Mais oui, the taxometer was showing 125. Aha?!Maybe the man had fallen on hard times or saw that we we're business travelers. I didn't argue in my weak French. Then they normally refuse to help you unload or even drive off with your stuff.
The flight home went with Air France although we had booked Delta as usual. I much prefer the new aircraft Air France provided, a Boeing 777-200ER; more leg room, wide seats and the fact that the seats went back almost horizontal. My first time on a flatbed. In the last delta Sky magazine I had read about Delta’s investment of 22 millions into flatbeds. Hubby actually had the good fortune to avail of one on his short trip to San Francisco. It makes all the difference.
Food wise, however, I was rather disappointing. Where was the famous French cuisine? Delta’s menu and wine list won hands down. We made it back to the States without any hiccups. For once, my fingerprints matched on entering the States. We had problems there before. Our car that was parked at a friend’s house closer to the airport needed a new battery. That’s an obstacle you can do without after a long tiring day.
The trip has come to an end. Still hoping to get that NPR interview with Melissa Ross that had to be postponed due to bad phone lines from France.
What questions is she likely to ask?
What questions do you have for me?
What am I going to do about my dissatisfaction with the last exchange, however?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pere Lachaise Cemetery- a Romantic Stroll?

It's not like we have an obsession with graveyards, but having been to Paris several times, I needed to see it and strike it off my list. It's often called the city of the dead due to its size (118 acres) and number of celebrities buried here; the biggest in the east of the city; situated in the 20th arrondissement. It's supposed to be beautiful and associated with a romantic stroll on a Sunday afternoon.
"At the time of its opening, the cemetery was considered to be situated too far from the city and attracted few funerals. Consequently, the administrators devised a marketing strategy and in 1804 with great fanfare organized the transfer of the remains of La Fontaine and Molière." All of a sudden, it was chic to be buried there. Now there is an impenetrable waiting list, I'm told. To cut to the chase, I was underwhelmed and not inspired.I had expected more trees and shrubs. Most graves are ancient, over a hundred years old and have no flower decorations; some have a few weeds.Many graves are in need of repair and their tombstones suffer from neglect and rust.
Among its most famous occupants are Chopin, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde. The compound is like a mazed little city and the graves are hard to find in spite of a map you can buy for 2 EUR. There were several groups led by tour guides, an indicator that they were at a famous grave. Mostly French and unknown to us.I joked about the shape of some of the older, tall, upright tombs. They resembled a phone booth, a Porta Cabins, or Disney castles with turrets. Why Oscar Wilde is so popular, I don't know. It has a modern shape in contrast to the rest and is covered in lipstick marks.But see for yourselves.
It also contains a good number of memorials for fallen soldiers of the two big wars, people who were killed in 1871 when Bismarck invaded Paris, the communards de 1871, Abelard and Heloise and a separate memorial to most of the known concentration camps. For a complete list of all who are buried there see Wikipedia.
It has a big crematorium too and an area for modern, anonymous burials, so called memorial gardens.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Catacombs, Sacre Coeur and Jardin du Luxembourg

At the weekend while my daughter and I went to see Sacre Coeur, hubby went to inspect the catacombs of Paris. We didn't know there were any - in Rome, yes- until we read about it in a recent National Geographic.It was also described as one of the scariest tourist destination. We preferred to see the famous church in Montmartre, although it was mobbed which had to be expected. They say that the French are on vacation in August- except of course the ones who run the city and tourist destinations. Plus the tourists were out in force in spite of some nasty rain.
Hubby waited almost two hours in line to get into the Catacombs, an underground ossuary at today's Place Denfert- Rochereau where about 6 millions remains are interred. In the late 18th century, Paris cemeteries were literally overflowing . Sanitary conditions around the church  and cemetery Saints Innocents became so unhealthy that the city had to act. One man got the task to solve the problem Police Lieutenant General, Alexandre Lenoir. Bodies were moved to underground mines from several surrounding graveyards.
The more morbidly inclined can read up on the subject Catacombs_of_Paris.
After that a stroll in the fresh air of the gardens were quite in order to bring hubby back to the here and now.
We weaseled our way to the Porte de Clignancourt where I had made cheap purchases at the famous flea market many moons ago. Today the area is firmly in African-Arab hands and we two blondes stuck out like a sore thumb. My daughter took many pictures of foreign garbs and head gears and was quite content to skip the actual market due to persistent rain.

Friday, August 12, 2011


Some trivial news I picked up on the trip that is not to be trifled with, however. Shopping carts in Germany and France only work if you put a EUR in and then they come apart and you can use one. How US shop owners don't worry about losing theirs is a legitimate question. You get the EUR back when you return it. Sometimes a similar token or a coin of a foreign denomination works as well, but you need one on hand. I spoke about the return of plastic and glass bottles to shops in Germany before. Here is a picture of one of those machines that then give you a return receipt for the cash out. I had never done it before, looked rather stupid not knowing how to handle it, and thought I'd put it here.
In France, in our neighborhood at least, they collect recyclables: glass bottles on Wednesdays, plastic bottles, spray cans, drinking cans and cartons as well as paper on Friday and the remainder of the trash on Monday. That makes for three cans outside.
Another triviality but of the utmost importance is that in the whole Metro system network, miles of underground interlinked transport, there is not one toilet facility. Arriving at the Gare St.Lazare from which we always take our commuter train to the suburbs, there are exactly two Porta Cabins/loos for a 50 cent charge.But alas, they are closed after 10 pm.So run for the nearest McDonald or so.
I saw some confused faces in restaurants when patrons notice that toilets often serve for both genders. Often there is 'Monsieur' on the left and"Madame' on the right and the hand wash basin in the middle. See a very special soap below. Without going into  too much of a detail, stalls are often on a timer to save electricity. One has to be prepared to be suddenly in total darkness for a few seconds until you make a move and the light comes on again.
German gas stations,  as a rule, do not take credit cards outside. You need to go in and pay after filling up. Most places don't take American Express. That is slightly better here in France. Reason? Vendors want to avoid the exorbitant merchant charges. I did too when I was still in business in Ireland. There is a difference of almost six percentage points between Visa, Mastercard and Amex.
Gas stations in France have a barrier at the exit. You cannot do a runner and not pay. They are not geared towards using credit cards outside yet as we this side of the Atlantic.You're practically locked in until you've paid.
Talking of prices. A glass of wine in a modest brasserie is 5EUR, in a better restaurant starting at 10, same for beer. A half bottle of water is 4,80; a liter EUR. My beloved fruit tartelettes went up too.In a boulangerie they are 2,80; in restaurants, they vary between 4,80 and 9EUR. Same for a Creme Brulee.
For a meal in a mediocre restaurant in Montparnasse which attracted bonvivants and famous writers at the turn of the last century, we paid 160 EUR for four. Just a main course and a glass of wine or beer each (I had hot tea). No desserts. Now get your calculator out and do the math.
PS.A reader's comment:
That is a prime thing for a country that wants tourists.  Women have to pee... often... at unexpected times... often in a hurry.  If they want to lure the lovelies they'd better have lovely loos.  Right?
No more holes in the floor.
Maybe a loo report from every town and city you visit would be a real asset to readers.  Might even help get city fathers, if there are burgermeisters around who care about such things, to look at loos as a big ass-et. Tourist loo-res, as it were.
Tour a loo a loo ree, tour a loo a lie?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Crowds at Versailles

I hate the crowd control at Disney’s amusement parks, but what I hate even more is the lack thereof. Versailles was inundated with gazillions of tourists, apparently. First you stand in line for a ticket (25 EUR); then you stand in line to get access to the castle; then you wait patiently for an audio guide. The booth closed right before my family turned up. They had run out of the handy hand-held devices. But after spending 75 EUR and having waited for almost 2 hours, they were committed. They decided to go for something to eat and drink first after this initial hurdle. After they left the restaurant, guess what: One should have got in line for the entrance again because the restaurant, technically speaking, was outside the chateau area. Hubby found a sympathetic crowd handler and forced their way back in.
It was a sunny day. The wonderful castle was filled to the roof with people and sunshine. So rooms were stuffy, crowds shoving, but you couldn’t fall over because of the mob around you. If someone wanted to tie their shoe laces, he would have been stampeded into the ground.
The Hall of Mirrors was open to the public again. It was undergoing repairs the last time we were there. Several other rooms in the ladies’ quarters, however, were closed off.
This is a second hand report from hubby. I’m glad I saw it before and didn’t go today

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sure feels like autumn

Waking up to 10 Celsius is a far cry from the Florida heat. I know we wanted a reprieve from the humid summer temperatures back at home, but little did I know I would swap it for cold and wet. All of last week except for the day my in-laws arrived, it was too wet, cold and windy to even sit outside on our lovely yard. All that cleaning of the pool for their arrival was in vain.We haven't been in yet. Today it's supposed to climb up to 23 (and sunny). But there is a cold wind blowing. The forecast for Friday and Saturday is rain again.I remember summers like that in Ireland. There it's a regular recurrence; a given and people are used to it.Like in Ireland, here the tomatoes that grow abundantly in the garden, are starting to rot. The rabbit or guinea pig doesn't like tomatoes or radishes. Their hay was totally soaked and their grains started to sprout.We had to do a major cleaning job - again.
France should be basking in summer heat. When I ask natives about this weird weather pattern, they shrug and tell me we should have come in June.Whether all these tourists milling about would prefer the heat over this weather since no place has AC, I doubt. Weren't there years where people even died in Paris because of heatwaves? I hear Britain has a heatwave now. Often it didn't make it to Ireland, even though these two islands are so closely located. The bad weather influence of the Atlantic (in this case maybe even remnants of Emily) always hit Ireland first and then are deflected to France.So it will remain a mixed bag. Some people are never happy..., n'est-ce pas?
The washer is going at top speed for my daughter's arrival tomorrow. She'll get the rain....But the weather is the same in Germany I hear. When we arrived at our first swapped home in Germany, I saw the rowan trees had red berries.Oh my, my mother used to say when they are red the summer is over. When we left, they were dark red. And the summer was basically over since then. There may be truth in these old sayings.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Boat Ride on the Seine

A boat ride on the Seine is an enjoyable way to see this famous city. Wherever you want to go, however, is miles away from where we’re situated, miles of Metro rides which is a science in itself. Green lines, pink lines, brown lines, change trains at certain stops, down the stairs, up the stairs onto another train maybe. There are the navettes: hop on and hop off boats which you can use pretty much along the Seine. The one of our choice, however, does a round trip and included a guided tour. Its starting point was near the Eiffel Tower only to be reached various trains. Metros go every few minutes, but for trains you have to wait much longer.The lines for visiting the Tower were as long as ever. We have been up the Tower before on a cold February day where we promptly caught a cold. Today people were basking in a humid summer sun. Yes, it is bigger than the one in Vegas. We bought four ice creams for just under 20 EUR, the better part of $30. The boat goes past the Place de la Concorde with its famous Obelisk of Luxor, a 3300-year-old granite monolith which was given to France by Egypt in 1829. Then it passes the long buildings of the Louvre, the Musée du Quay d’Orsay, a former train station converted into a museum. It hosts old and modern art and at the moment an exhibition about Brigitte Bardot. In passing you see Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cité and Pont de l'Alma where Lady Diana died underneath in the tunnel.  It was named was named to commemorate the Battle of Alma during the Crimean War.  The Flame of Liberty at the bridge's north end has become an unofficial memorial to Diana. Lots of well adorned bridges with plenty of gold from its days of royal glory. Paris is called the city of flowers, too but this time I didn’t see too many.Cutbacks maybe?

The Parisians have a stretch along the Seine called ‘Paris Plage’.  It’s dedicated to recreation on or rather near the water for those city dwellers that do not go on the annual August vacation; it’s also a tourist attraction. You see sun umbrellas and deck chairs; sand has been hauled in and several big sand castles were built; but you cannot get access to the water, no “lido” for water sports or swimming. It was well frequented and people waved at us in the passing boat. Funny for a Floridian since the weather isn’t even that hot.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Our first sightseeing stop: L'Opera.

On my previous trips to Paris I failed to visit the inside of the Opéra or Palais Garnier – Opéra nationale de Paris. We made it our first sight-seeing stop. The grand interior is well worth a visit, resplendent in gold and marble. Our amateurish pictures don’t do it any justice. In the main auditorium, its ceiling was painted by Chagall. (We saw a glass stained window with allegorical biblical scenes created by this artist in the Cathedral of Reims as well by the way). It also has an eight-ton crystal chandelier, and purple velvet seats set around an Italian –style stage.
 The Opéra was inaugurated under the Third Republic, following fifteen years of setbacks including a nightmarish discovery by the architect Charles Garnier, of an underground expanse of water. This rather deep lake, the stage for executions during the Commune, was the inspiration for writer Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera.
Did you know that fish, fed by the scene shifters, glide through the underground waters of the Opera House and bees, from two hives on the roof, collect their nectar in the nearby Tuileries gardens?
It’s a easy walk to the Louvre and the Tuileries from there. But also to the big shopping icons like Galerie Lafayette on Blvd. Haussmann and the Left Bank. Those were closed, however, on a Sunday.  
The Left Bank was famous for its bohemian and liberal life style.” Ernest Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein poured drinks here as fast as prose. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir chain-smoked their way to existentialism here, but the arrival of chic shops like Ralph Lauren’s last year dispelled any notions of lingering antiestablishment.” Delta’s Sky magazine sings the praises of a hip new area for boutique and ethnic shopping as well as antiques near Rue Oberkampf and Blvd. Beaumarchais.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It got better

After the initial shock, I felt better once hubby found the switch for the central heating. Arriving in a strange place when it’s dark and you’re tired makes for uneasy feelings. The house had been all shuttered up and gloomy. The next day, we opened up the French windows and let in a frail Parisian sunshine.  We felt much better after that. A few hours of cleaning and a bottle of air freshener later, things looked up even more.
It’s a lovely house if a bit dated and rundown; a withering flower that has seen better times and more attention when it was younger. In contrast, we had spent many a weekend to prep our own abode: repaired little things, done touch-up jobs, bought new towels, even sheets. A friend asked me before we left,”Why don’t you do all that after your return?” We just wanted to present our home at its best.
I’d better concentrate on the positive. The location is just magnificent. Within a reasonable train ride into Paris and not too far from Versailles; in a quiet upscale neighborhood with big gardens and beautiful views. We have our own swimming pool and rabbit. Plus a guinea pig thrown in. That’s right. Two weeks before our departure, we got the request to feed these two pets. What could we do? I had specifically chosen a house without pets. They are outside, however, at least at the moment. (Hence the smell?)
Since the weather picked up yesterday- now around 80 F- we mostly live and eat outside. The open windows and doors provide a fresh breeze. No air condition, or rather a broken unit outside. What we do miss, however, is the lack of an ice-maker or at least a little freezing compartment in the big fridge. There is a deep freezer in the garage but that’s a long way from the kitchen.
And we made friends with the pets. The rabbit loves dandelion and the guinea pig prefers carrots.  But they firmly remain outside.